Churches of the Byzantine Rite celebrate the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council (“The Council”) on the Sunday between the Ascension and Pentecost Sunday.  The Council was held in 325 A.D. and was attended by 318 bishops (although there is some dispute about this number.) [1] It defined major aspects of Christian doctrine incorporated into the Divine Liturgies of St. John Chrysostom and Basil the Great. For example, every Sunday Byzantine Christians pray the Nicene Creed.[2] The bishops emphasized Jesus is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.  This article will not focus on the theology of the Council, but on some of the participants themselves.  This aspect of the Nicene Council is frequently overlooked because historians sometimes lose sight of what was happening at the time.   Constantine the Great, the first Christian Emperor began ruling the Roman Empire diocese by diocese[3] and from the West.  In 305, he was responsible for modern-day France and England.  Spain defected to his control in 308.  In 312, Italy.[4]  By 314, the rest of Europe came under his dominion.  In 324, the remaining parts of the Empire—the Middle East, Turkey, and Egypt—were taken by Constantine through civil war. As a result, the Empire had been united under one leader for the first time in decades. At each step of the way Constantine stopped the persecution of Christians.  Other Roman Emperors in power around this time were often vicious persecutors of Christianity. [5]  Martyrdoms were occurring in the Eastern part of the Empire right up to 324.[6]

When Constantine arrived in the East, he found a badly divided Church.  Various groups were chiseling chiseling the unity of the Church, including the Arians and the Meletians.[7]The theological arguments were threatening to shatter the peace of Church but also the unified empire.  To foster peace, Constantine called the first great council.  He brought the bishops together to settle these issues once and for all.

Put yourself in the place of a typical bishop of the time. Just a short time before, the Eastern Roman emperors were searching out bishops for death. It was dangerous being a bishop. Bishops were being targeted.[8] They were being regularly hauled off and done away with.

Several of the Emperors said they would stop persecuting Christians, but all eventually reverted to persecutions.  Imagine how it felt to receive an invitation from the new Emperor to come to his palace. The bishops must have felt some degree of terror. This emperor said he wouldn’t persecute Christians, but could they trust him?  Could they be going to their death?

The bishops had to make the journey to Nicaea, in modern day Turkey. Even though the Emperor gave them travel arrangements, any form of travel was still difficult in those days. When the bishops finally arrived, they were reminded of the danger they could be in simply by looking around. Evidence of the previous persecutions were all around them. One of the bishops, Pamphnutius, was blinded in the persecution.  Paul of Neocaesarea’s hands were burned so he couldn’t offer the liturgy. One pious legend has St. Nicholas of Myra being present.  It is said he slapped Arius and was thus expelled from the Council.  It is for this reason the his name is not recorded as being present at the Council.

There were also exceptional Christian leaders there as well. Among them were Alexander, the archbishop of Alexandria and Athanasius his deacon.  Both of these men are now remembered as saint and as champions of Christian orthodoxy.[9]

The opening of the Council shows how wary the bishops were. The emperor walked down the center of the bishops.  He had no guards. The bishops stood.  When Constantine reached his seat, he indicated to the bishops they could sit.  Being savvy, the bishops told Constantine to be seated first.  Finally, they all sat together.

Besides physical danger, there were other types of danger as well.  The bishops felt very strongly about their positions.  The verbal abuse was brutal at the Council.   The first bishop that spoke was one of Constantine’s favorites.[10] He was blistered by the rhetoric of others. Another bishop was referred to as the shameless servant of the devil.

The Gospel reading for this Sunday is the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus as reported in the Gospel of St. John the Theologian.  In this Gospel, Jesus talks about losing only one man, who was destined to be lost.  On that occasion, Jesus was speaking of Judas.   At the end of the Council, all but two men agreed to sign the Creed. One was Arius[11],  who proclaimed Jesus was not the Son of God, but merely a Creature created by God.  Arius was never completely reconciled back to the faith, and so he too, was “lost.”[12]

[1] For instance, Athanasius the Great, who attended the Council as a deacon thought there was about 200 bishops. The number 318 corresponds with the number of soldiers Abraham used to save Lot. As such it becomes highly symbolic here, as these 318 bishops become the saviors of Christian Orthodoxy.

[2] The Second Ecumenical Council inserted language concerning the Holy Spirit.  For brevity however, the Creed is referred to as the Nicene Creed in this document.

[3]  The reference here is to the civil dioceses of the Roman Empire.  The Empire was divided into fourteen civil dioceses and ruled by up to four emperors.

[4] After the famous battle of the Milvian Bridge.

[5] These included Diocletian, Maximin Daia, and eventually Licinius.

[6] For example, the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste.

[7] The Meletians believed apostates should not be readmitted into the Church.  The Arians believed the Son and the Holy Spirit were Creatures, created by God.  There was no Holy Trinity for the Arians.

[8] Of course, that continues to happen.  There are still places in the world where Christian leaders are persecuted.

[9] Athanasius of course becomes one of the Great Greek Doctors of the Church when he succeeds Alexander as Archbishop of Alexandria Egypt.  He was exiled for many years because of his beliefs.

[10] Eusebius of Nicomedia, who had pro-Arian leanings.

[11] Arius was a senior presbyter of the Archdiocese of Alexandria.  He had many followers throughout the Empire.

[12] Despite pressure from Constantine, Athanasius would not receive him back into Alexandria.